A sensible investor could be forgiven for looking elsewhere. Batumi doesn’t quite scream out “promising resort town with guaranteed return on investments” to those with a tuned sense of risk – it has a pebbly beach, drably Soviet outskirts, and is located in Georgia, a country which under its current president can never quite guarantee that convoys of Russian tanks won’t be dropping in on the party.
But that same president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is convinced that Batumi can be a success story, and while some of his hyperbole is difficult to believe, it’s hard not to be impressed with what has been done already.
Saakashvili, who admits to being “infected with Batumi”, took Monocle on a tour of the Black Sea city last week. The sub-tropical city, lined with palm trees and warm even in October, looks a good deal more impressive than it did a few years back, when the central government in Tbilisi wrestled back control from a local mini-dictator who ran the city and surrounding region as a corrupt fiefdom. The pleasant city centre, dotted with buildings from the late Tsarist era, when Batumi was a booming transit city where Caspian oil was loaded onto tankers heading to Europe, has been renovated. Fountains and leafy boulevards abound, and tourists are up from 100,000 two years ago to 500,000 this year, with a plan to attract two million a year by 2012, according to the regional governor.
“We want it to be like Beirut for the Middle East or Amsterdam for Europe,” says Saakashvili. “A place where people from the region can come to relax and not feel like they’re somewhere where everything is different. It will feel culturally similar and easy to adapt, but at the same time be more liberal than their home countries.” The main markets in mind are Turkey and Iran, and with the city only a little over an hour’s flight from both Tehran and Istanbul, this doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Bars, casinos and seaside walks along new promenades infused with contemporary architectural touches are among the attractions.
Next year a Hilton, a Hyatt and a Sheraton are all due to open, with investors apparently ready to take an “If you build it they will come” approach to the city. Many of the investors in the city are part of the Georgian diaspora, currently residing in Russia, Ukraine, Turkey or Israel, says Saakashvili.
“Lots of them are investing because they feel like it and it seems right, rather than because they’ve done feasibility studies and are certain that their money is 100 per cent secure,” he says.
Sitting at a seafront café and tucking into the local speciality, a boat-shaped bread stuffed with cheese and topped with an egg, as delicious as it is calorific, only underlines that Batumi is one of the few genuinely beautiful and pleasant cities in the former Soviet Union. Given that, there is – just maybe – a chance that Saakashvili’s seemingly wild fantasies will come to fruition.